The Apology, decoded

Socrates’ Defense

Well, here I am, on trial. My accusers have just told you how eloquent I am, but they should be ashamed of themselves. You’ll soon see that they were lying. They are much more eloquent than me; they’re so eloquent they almost made me believe them! In comparison, I am quite blunt. I can’t dress my words up—but I shouldn’t have to. The truth is plain, and I will speak to you plainly. I know this is a fancy courthouse, and I know people dress their words up like they dress themselves up when they come here. But I’m old, and I’ve never been here before. Please, be kind; treat me like you would a stranger from a different country, for in some ways, I am.

Before I deal with the charges that brought me here, I will have to deal with some old accusations. These are accusations I have faced for years, and, to be honest, I’m more afraid of them than I am the charges of Anytus. I know that you all have heard of me before. Some of you have heard of me since you were children. You will have heard that I’m a wise man, and that I speculate about odd things and love nothing more than to win an argument. You have heard these slanders for so long and from so many people that it is hard for me to argue against them. I need to fight with shadows in my own defense and cross-examine someone who does not answer. Only once I have done this will I be able to deal with the other charges, the ones that have got me here in court.

You’ve all heard that I love to win arguments, correct? Have any of you actually ever seen me argue, and argue to win? No? Then that’s that. What you heard is a false rumour, just a rumour. I admit, I love to talk with people and to argue, but I always seek truth, not victory.

You may also have heard that I love to teach. I am not a teacher. I wish I knew something to teach! I would love to teach! Gorgias of Leontium gets paid for teaching, and so do Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis. Their students not only pay but are glad to pay! How wonderful. If I were as talented as they are, I would be very proud and conceited; but the truth is simple. I have nothing to teach.

I know you are all wondering how I ended up here in court, if none of these rumours is true. Men of Athens, I’m here because I have a certain kind of wisdom. If you ask me what kind of wisdom, I’d have to say a small and natural wisdom. Those others, the ones who teach, they have a great and supernatural wisdom. Not me.

Hey, hey! Quiet down, you in the back! What I say is true! Ask the god of Delphi. Chaerephon, my friend and yours, he went to Delphi and asked the oracle to tell him whether—hey, be quiet!—He asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than me. The oracle said there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead now, but his brother is here. Ask him if you want.

When I heard what the oracle said, I said to myself: What can the god be thinking? On the one hand, I know that I’m not wise at all, but on the other hand, the oracle cannot lie. After thinking about it, I figured out what to do. I decided that I would try to prove the oracle wrong. I made this my mission.

I went to a person who was supposed to be wise to have a little talk. In this case, since he was a politician, I asked him about politics. Now, don’t worry. I won’t name names.

But you know, I realized after talking with him for a while that he wasn’t really wise. And I told him so. Well you can imagine how he took that. He hated me. So did his friends. I knew, though, that neither of us knows anything good, but I know that I don’t know, while he still thinks he does know. I’m better off than him—for he knows nothing and thinks he knows something. I neither know nor think that I know.

I did this again and again. I went to politicians, poets, artisans, the works. Let me tell you: I pissed a lot of people off. I had to keep going, though. The god had said I was wise. And you know what: I found that the men with the best reputations were really the most foolish, and I found some supposedly inferior men were really wiser and better.

But boy, oh boy, did I make a lot of enemies. A lot. The kids, they liked me, but nobody else did. The kids liked to hear me talk to the wise men. Eventually, they started doing it themselves, in fact. I didn’t teach them how. I told you—I don’t teach. They just did it.

And this, men of Athens, this is the truth and the whole truth.

Now let me turn to my accusers, the ones who brought me here today: Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon. They say this: Socrates is a doer of evil, and a corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own. Let me go through these accusations step by step.

They say that I do evil and corrupt the youth; but I say, men of Athens, that Meletus is a doer of evil. He is making a joke of this court. That’s a real evil.

Come here, Meletus, and let me ask you some questions. You say you know how to improve young people?

Yes, I do.

Okay. When we want to improve young people, whom should we call? What, no answer? What should we do? What improves young people?

The laws.

Oh, c’mon Meletus. You know that’s not what I mean. Who makes the laws?

The judges, Socrates, who are here in court.

Oh! Okay then! So the judges here are able to instruct and improve youth?

Yes, they must.

What, all of them?

All of them, yes. All of these great men improve our youth.

Get out of town! That is good news! There are plenty of improvers, then. And what about the audience. Them too? They improve the youth?

Yes, they do.

And the senators?

Yes, the senators improve the youth.

But perhaps the members of the citizen assembly corrupt them? Or do they improve them?

They improve them. All the citizens of Athens improve our youth. I say that emphatically.

Then every Athenian improves the youth. All with the exception of me, poor Socrates. Am I their only corrupter? Is that what you’re saying?

That is what I am saying.

Wow. If that were true, I’m would really be in trouble. But Meletus, you and I both know that it’s not true. Let’s talk about horses. When it comes to training horses, is everyone good, or do some people train them better than others? Can everybody be a trainer? Or do some people just make things worse? Oh. No answer? Well, it seems to me that horses are a little like the youth. Both need specialized teachers. And you have to admit that it’s a little unlikely that I’m the only person who corrupts them.

Let me ask you another question. You surely think it’s better to live with good people.

Certainly.

And do you think that I corrupt the youth intentionally or accidentally?

Intentionally! You, Socrates, corrupt the youth intentionally!

Now hold on. Why would I want to live around bad people? You just said that it is better to live with good people. Why would I want to make things worse in my own town? Either I don’t corrupt them, or I do corrupt them, but I do so accidentally. In either case, you’re lying. In either case, I’m not guilty. You know that our law does not punish people who commit accidents.

Furthermore, if you really thought I did this by accident, you should have taken me aside and warned me. Instead, you indicted me in this court. You don’t really care about helping the youth of Athens. You are just out for revenge.

I still want to know, Meletus, what you think I’m doing wrong. I guess you must think that I teach the youth about false gods. That’s what you charged me with.

Yes, that’s it. You believe in false gods!

Do you mean that I teach about false gods, or that I’m an atheist? You didn’t make that clear in your charge, but do tell me what’s going on.

I mean that you are a complete atheist.

Don’t you think that I believe the sun and the moon are gods, just like everyone else here?

No, you do not. Judges, he says that the sun is stone, and the moon earth.

Meletus, you’ve confused me with Anaxagoras; don’t think that the jury is that dumb. They know that the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian are full of these theories. And you do know that Anaxagoras’ plays are at the theatre, right? The youth go there often. Even had I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to fool them into thinking these theories are mine. They are far too smart for that. You are a liar, Meletus. You don’t even believe yourself. Go sit down.

Well that’s that. I have a lot of enemies, though. Meletus is only one. If I die here, it will be them, not him, that kill me. Let me address some.

Someone is going to say that I should straighten up and be ashamed of my embarrassing life. Someone is going to say that this life will get me killed. But you know what? A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong, acting the part of a good man or of a bad.

I have never feared death. Why would I start now, when I am old? When I was young and a soldier I wasn’t afraid. When the tyrants were in charge, they tried to kill me. I wasn’t afraid then either. It would be absurd for me to desert the philosopher’s post now. Being afraid of death is nothing but a pretense of wisdom. No one knows whether death is good or bad. I know that I do not know, just like I said. This is what makes me wiser than other men.

Someone will say that I should stop asking questions and be a good, quiet citizen, and you may agree, and acquit me on that condition. If you let me go, and if you ask me to stop bugging you, asking you questions, trying to discover the truth, and trying to keep you virtuous, I will disobey you. I will persevere. Let me say this loud and clear: men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey god rather than you. While I have life and strength, I will never stop doing philosophy. I will always tell people I meet: Friend, you live in the great city Athens. Why do you care so much about getting rich and being famous? Don’t you worry about your soul and truth?

No, I won’t stop, not with them or with you.

In fact, let me do it now. You, out there, old and young alike, stop worrying about yourself and your stuff. Worry about your soul. Virtue does not come from money. No, money comes from virtue, and so does every other good thing. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine that corrupts the youth, my influence is terrible indeed.

I love you, but whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.

Hey! You promised that I’d be able to talk! And I think that what I am going to say will do you good. It’s just one more thing, but you won’t like it.

If you kill me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Meletus and Anytus will not injure me: they cannot; bad men can’t harm good men. They will only hurt themselves.

If you kill me, you won’t find another like me. I am a sort of gadfly, given to Athens by the gods. Athens is a big, majestic horse. I’m the fly that bugs the horse and keeps it awake. Yes, I bug you. Yes, you could kill me easily. But know this: if you do, you’ll slumber for the rest of your lives.

Alright, alright. There’s just one more thing. A lot of people come here and beg for mercy. They cry and wail and bring out their wives and children. I’m too good for that. Don’t hold it against me.

The jury finds Socrates guilty.

Socrates’ proposal for his sentence

Oh well. I’m not upset. I expected this sentence. I’m only surprised that the vote was so close.

Meletus proposes death as the penalty. What should I propose? What I deserve. I have lived a busy life in service of Athens. What should be done to me? Something good, of course. Something suitable…. I would like a nice retirement, just like our athletes get. I’m truly needy. Athletes aren’t. They give you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality.

No, I’m not joking. I didn’t do anything wrong. If the law didn’t require one day trials, I might have convinced you. I could not convince you in so little time of the falsity of the lies you had heard for so long.

Anyway, I never wronged you. You might say I should go to prison or pay a fine, yet prison is bad and death is not. Perhaps I should be exiled. But nobody else would have me, and I’m old. The same thing will happen everywhere I go. I could never change: the very best thing in life is conversing about about virtue. The unexamined life is not worth living.

Oh, alright. Plato and my friends say they will pay 30 minae. Let that be my punishment.

The jury condemns Socrates to death.

Socrates’ comments on his sentence

You know, if you had just waited, I would have died anyway! Like I said, I’m old. Now everyone will always say that you killed Socrates. Some of you convicted me because I wouldn’t beg for mercy. I thought that was below me. I’d rather die than debase myself—you see, the difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness. Unrighteousness runs far faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me. My accusers are young and quick, and the faster runner has overtaken them.

I will be condemned to death. My accusers will be condemned to know that they did wrong. Let us go to our punishments. I much prefer mine.

I predict bad things for those of you who convicted me. Men near death have this power. You killed me because you did not want to tell the truth about the way you have lived. You made a mistake. I held the young ones back. They will be worse than I ever was. You should improve yourselves, not annihilate your critics.

To those friends who would have acquitted me, let me talk before I go to die. I have long had a little voice in my head, and it has always warned me before I did something wrong. This voice has not said anything today. I am quite sure that I said and did the right things. Death is nothing to fear.

There is more proof, though, that death is a good. It can only be one of two things: a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or migration of the soul from this world to another. But if death were like sleep without dreams, death would be wonderful. Who would not like a restful sleep? And if death is the journey to another place of souls, what could be better? I would love to talk with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer! Let me die again and again! I would love to talk to Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old. They were killed unjustly, just like I will be. We will have much to discuss.

More than anything, if death takes me to the afterlife, I will be able to find more truth. I will find out who is wise and who pretends to be wise. Who wouldn’t love to ask Odysseus or Sisyphus questions! And you know what? In the afterlife, they can’t kill me for asking them questions! Not, of course, that they would.

No, no bad thing can happen to a good man, in this life or in the next. I’m not angry with my accusers. They didn’t do me any harm.

Still, I have one favour to ask. When my sons are grown up, please punish them. Trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything else, more than they care about virtue. Punish them if they pretend to be something they are not. If you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better the gods only know.